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TV show host and public science educator Bill Nye

Bill Nye Discusses Being "The Science Guy."

Bill Nye, The Science Guy. Through his long-running PBS show, Nye continues to teach kids about the fun and magic of science. The show "Bill Nye the Science Guy" is also in syndication and Nye has released a series of themed videos culled from his shows. (Interview by Barbara Bogaev)

26:24

Other segments from the episode on December 4, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, December 4, 1997: Interview with Ellen Ullman; Interview with Bill Nye.

Transcript

Show: FRESH AIR
Date: DECEMBER 04, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 120401np.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Close to the Machine
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev in for Terry Gross.

At the heart of the information age is the computer, and at the heart of the computer is the computer programmer. My guest, Ellen Ullman, is the rare programmer who can eloquently describe what goes on at ground zero of writing new software.

Though she's worked in the field for almost 20 years, and even takes computers apart and puts them back together for fun in her free time, she also offers a critique of the insidious ways in which computer technology colors our human interactions.

Ellen Ullman has worked as a software engineer and now runs her own computer consulting company. She's written articles for Wired Women, Harpers magazine, and trade publications. She's also a commentator for NPR's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

In her new book, Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents," she describes how in the midst of writing a software program, human and machine seem attuned to a cut diamond-like state of grace. But this is only one aspect of what Ullman calls "being in the code zone."

ELLEN ULLMAN, COMPUTER SOFTWARE ENGINEER AND NPR COMMENTATOR, AUTHOR, "CLOSE TO THE MACHINE: TECHNOPHILIA AND ITS DISCONTENTS": Well, the "code zone," as it's called in there, has two distinct phases. The earlier phase is when you're developing the system, and there it's a wonderful, kind of cool mathematical place. One can get into a sort of lovely, obsessive mind-state where everything seems workable; the world seems structured and lovely; and you feel you can just get it to work and it -- one is very, very absorbed into this almost methadrine high of thought.

The code zone that opens the book is a very different place. It's the real madness that lives at the heart of programming. There are -- we're right before a system release, and inevitably at this phase, bugs show up. And some of them are minor and you just kind of send it out and hope for the best. But if you have what we call "level one" bugs -- these are fatal bugs; that is, they crash the system; you cannot send it out.

So in the scene that opens the book, the three of us are trying to shake out some of these fatal bugs. We're in this obsessed state of mind to fix these bugs, which almost feel demonic at this point.

BOGAEV: Now, system-release -- this is what provokes this state, this long uninterrupted all-nighter period that most people think of when you think of programming?

ULLMAN: Yes, that's -- either before it ships -- in other words, before it leaves the programmer's hands. And you know, I think people have this idea that programming's this very logical kind of boring thing. You know, maybe it would be like accounting. I don't want to say accounting's boring -- my father was an accountant -- but that it's very regular and that there are clear-cut rules.

It does seem that way from the outside, but it's right before the system release that we really feel, we programmers, the strange state wherein what we know to be true as humans and the way a computer functions are really very different things. I mean, we know what we mean, but the computer only can do what we tell it to do. And we think we've given it the right instructions, but inevitably there are flaws.

And so you look at it -- a bug is unpredictable behavior; unpredicted, unplanned behavior. And at some point you have to admit to yourself: this isn't my creation anymore. It's doing something, but I haven't the faintest idea what. And trying to find the cause of this "I haven't the faintest idea what" is -- under heavy time pressure -- is what produces this strange, mad state.

BOGAEV: Knowing how software gets made, does it make you distrustful of the technology that you use every day? The Mac machines and making hotel reservations and -- by -- in cyberspace?

ULLMAN: Yes and no. Some of the -- like, making hotel reservations, no. I mean, what I mostly fear about computers is not that there are bugs because, yes, there are bugs. And it's usually pretty clear. The system goes down. You know, you call up to check on your credit card, and they say "I'm sorry, I can't do anything -- the system's down."

But the thing that I worry more about is that the system can't handle the rounded edges of human existence. I mean, we're not like these machines. We want to see ourselves in them. It's very natural that we toolmakers would create a wonderful tool and want to see our own reflection in it.

But the computer is really not like us. Human beings can function supremely well when they barely know what's going on; when things are half-understood; when there's a great deal of ambiguity. I mean, we're almost designed to function well and pick out the one or two little clues we need to operate, and ignore all the rest as chaos.

Computers are just the opposite. Everything to them -- them -- everything to a computer has to be stated clearly. It has no foreground or background or unconscious or imagination. And so the more and more we're dependent upon computers and what's planned into them, the more this other part of our lives has sort of no place to be. That worries me more than bugs.

BOGAEV: Well, you give a very good example of that in the discussion of the program that you are actually installing in the first pages of the book. And it's a -- the beginnings of a city-wide registration system for AIDS patients. And you write that when you -- after you create this system, you finally meet with the people who are going to actually use this software, and their doctors; their hospice directors; their directors of women's shelters. And they all have these complaints about the system that are very valid.

And you write that in some way that the system has pre-existed these people. And I'd like to know what you mean by that.

ULLMAN: I think we'd like to believe that when we design a system for people, we get them in a room and we ask them: "gee, how would you like it to be?" And it really doesn't work that way. Someone gets an idea to build a system and they hire some technical people. Really, the technical people sort of get started on designing this, and very often the people who actually use it come in later. It's not supposed to be this way, but it often happens this way anyway.

So by the time I actually met the people who would use this thing, well, you know, I already had a sort of fair idea. I had that pretty mathematical idea, you know: "oh, it will work like this. It will be just perfect. It'll to this. It'll do that." And then suddenly, here are the actual people. And, of course, they bring with them all the rounded edges of regular life, and all their objections to all these lovely mathematical structured ideas I've had, and all the ideas that some community task force came up with -- some of them rather baroque; some of them rather useful.

And this is the disjunction of computer systems. On the one hand, you've got this great idea. You know, "oh, it will go like this and this transaction goes up here and it's updated over there." And in my mind, the system exists. And then the people step into the picture, and somehow I have to deal with that disjunction.

BOGAEV: And that often happens? That the technology can put the people who will use it at its mercy?

ULLMAN: Well, I don't know about "at its mercy," because obviously -- well, sometimes yes. I mean -- but the fact of the matter is that programmers have a lot more to do with the systems we're seeing than we'd all like to admit.

Certainly, the whole notion of a computer system is something that comes out of people who want to use this technology. In a sense, every computer system has embedded in it a programmer's idea of how to interact with the world.

So in a way, we technical people, in designing these systems, are implicitly putting in our own way of life -- the way we like to interact with the world and each other, and that is through the work station.

BOGAEV: End-users, you write, the people who actually use your programs, are contemptible in programming culture. So, does this have fall-out? That the people who make computer software have contempt for those of us who will use it?

ULLMAN: Well, no. I don't know how many people would admit it. I'm trying to use that a little bit ironically, but there is an upside-down hierarchy in software engineering. That is, the more you do code that's only seen by the machine or other code -- that is, code used by other programmers -- the more you get to be called a "software engineer;" the more you get paid; the higher status you have in the profession.

As you move into what we call "higher level" programming, which actually in the world of computers means it's worse -- "higher level" is bad. Higher level means normal people might use this thing. You are called a programmer. You often use your credential as a software engineer. And normally, you get paid less and get less status. It's quite the opposite of what you would think, because in a way programming for other machine processes is relatively easy, because you can define both ends of the transaction.

Writing something that on the other end of which is a human being is a lot more complex affair. Human beings are more complex, and you can rely on their intelligence, but you also can't rely on them to be structured the way you'd like them to be.

BOGAEV: My guest is Ellen Ullman. She is a software consultant. She's written about computer technology for Wired Women, Harpers magazine, and many trade publications. Her new memoir is Close to the Machine.

We're going to take a short break and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

If you're just joining us, my guest is software consultant and engineer Ellen Ullman. Her new book is Close to the Machine.

You were at one time a member of an underground Communist Party? Is that right?

ULLMAN: Mm-hmm.

BOGAEV: Was it an underground group?

ULLMAN: It was a Marxist-Leninist-Mao Tse Tung Thought Feminist Formation.

BOGAEV: OK.

LAUGHTER

Glad we got that straight.

How do you go from Communist Party member to computer programmer? Are the two vocations -- do they have more in common than meets the eye?

ULLMAN: Well, at the time I thought it was completely bizarre. I mean, at the time, I just did it. I had always been involved in kind of machine-oriented things. The minute, I got out of college, I did video production and in this party, I did graphic arts and photography and things like that -- laying out the party newspaper.

When I got out of this, I was a pretty damaged person. This party was something of a political cult and when I tried to quit, I was expelled in a sort of very painful way. And all I could do then, I just -- I just remember sitting there doing symbolic logic proofs -- hour by hour, day by day. I found them very soothing somehow. It was somehow to clear away the cobwebs in my soul, I guess, that I was sitting there, you know, taught myself the propositional calculus and work proofs of that.

And at some point, I said: "OK, now I have to get a job." And I looked in the paper -- what do I know how to do? And I knew how to do photography. That's under "P." And there weren't too many jobs of that. And just underneath that was "programmer." And I said: "well, gee, I know how to do that."

I'd done some programming doing computer-aided animation in the early '70s and you know, I said: "well, I think I can do this." And applied for a job, and the industry was so exploding at the time that the guy who interviewed me said: "well, you don't know anything, but gee, you've touched a computer. You're hired."

So at the time, it seemed a bizarre shift. Later, when I thought about it in writing the book, it seemed to me that it wasn't so bizarre; that in a way, communism and computer programming and the whole technophilia had a lot in common.

They both were very much based on the notion that you're -- the technology around you defines your consciousness. That's what Marx believed. And that the sort of -- in idea that's come back around, you know, we'll make a new human being on the Internet. That sounds like an old idea -- you know, the new man that socialism was going to create.

And also it's a form of structured thinking. It occurred to me that, you know, maybe Marxist phases of history were just the algorithm of the computer program no one could ever quite get to run.

So it didn't seem so strange at all. The Soviet Union and China are run by engineers, and, you know, here I am an engineer. So perhaps it wasn't such a great leap after all.

BOGAEV: Your industry is full of instant millionaires and very young ones. There's just a lot of money floating -- floating around. What legacy do your former politics have for you, if any at all? Or what reverberations?

ULLMAN: That's an interesting question. At the time, I didn't really know much about the money scene. When I worked for my first start-up company, I mean I, you know, we -- none of us believed at the time that the company would ever go public. You know, we were given options for huge numbers of shares of stock, and we go like "oh, yeah, you know, we'll hang these up in our bathroom some day."

And actually it was quite resentful of the venture capitalists who would come every Friday night and exhort us to work hard and work long hours and work weekends and work nights. And you know, I was -- I was feeling like: "yeah, well, why don't you come work nights, you know? You're the guys who are going to get rich." And I was actually quite cynical.

But later on, as, you know, as the company did go public, I didn't become a millionaire. I left the company before I vested all my shares of stock. You know, I got a loft and a car and I'm delighted to have that. It's strange to see people that I knew, you know, become really immensely wealthy, but the cost in their personal lives, in some cases, was quite high.

I know I could not have stayed there the seven years that would have been necessary to vest all that stock to become an instant millionaire. So by the way, it's not so "instant" as you think. I think at the end of seven years of not talking to people and working seven days a week at a computer, I'm not sure I would have existed in any way that I would have found pleasant.

BOGAEV: You do write a lot about the gen -- I guess, the generation gap in the computer industry. A lot of the programmers are 20-something, and you're somewhat of an anomaly. Now I can understand why young people, obviously, are attracted to the industry and prosper in it. But does that mean that older programmers like yourself are considered suspect? And is there a prejudice that "you people" can't possibly be on top of this industry? It's so hip? It's so now?

ULLMAN: Well, a lot depends on the particular environment you're working in. I mean, there are some places like, you know, Sun Microsystems -- they have a laboratory thing there and, you know, to be a senior fellow at a place like that -- I mean, you would be expected to have some years on you.

But that's almost a quasi-academic environment. I'd say in the day-to-day stuff, yeah. I mean -- I mean, the young people I meet, it's like, well, you know, what's the problem with your continuing to learn new things? I mean, you just keep doing it. It's great. It's exhilarating. I mean, they seem to think that, you know, I've just kind of lost it, you know. That maybe if you're over a certain age, you just don't have the fire in the belly or something like that.

But I actually have to say that the more thoughtful programmers are curious about, you know, some of the history of their own profession. I mean, there really isn't much new in computing so far. I mean, every -- there are new tools and new particulars, but the profession's been around long enough for there to have been some pendulum swings back and forth, from, like, things like centralization to decentralization and back again.

And some of the more thoughtful programmers are a little curious -- but just a little. For me, my problem is triple. I mean, when I go into a new contract and have to deal with programmers, I walk in -- of course, I'm sort of dressed up because I'm a consultant. I'm middle aged and I'm a woman and I'm wearing lipstick. And the first thing they do is, you know, think I'm in marketing. And for a programmer, sort of the lowest form of life would be someone in marketing.

And so, I have to kind of run through a gauntlet to prove to them that I'm actually technical. And that gets harder and harder as you get older and get -- and I get further and further away from having my hands down at the very bottom of the stuff.

So periodically, I'm gonna have to go back again and spend some time just digging down to the bottom of this big heap of stuff.

BOGAEV: The technology changes so fast. Why don't you give us an idea what it takes to stay on top of it?

ULLMAN: You know, if I were programming every day still, I would have had to, in the past few years, go through a huge reorientation of my brain. There was a computer language called "C" which had certain structured techniques one used to write programs, which was completely supplanted in a couple of years by something called "C++" and it sounds like a successor, but it's really not. It's a hugely different way of organizing the logic for a program. It's like you just have to take your brain and turn it completely upside down.

BOGAEV: I don't even know -- I don't even know what it means to learn so many languages over and over again, but later in your -- but in your book, you also describe all of the literature you read every day -- the trade journals, the magazines, the -- I can't even compile -- the, the list.

ULLMAN: Well, I mean, every Monday, these three fat journals come to my door, these trade journals. And they're just chock full of new products and announcements from companies and looks into the future of new versions of things. And, I mean, no one can possibly read all this stuff. I mean, you know, what you do is stand there at the counter and flip, flip, flip, flip -- and just run the stuff in front of your eyes to see if anything catches.

Then there's, you know, the technical publications -- Microsoft Systems Journal or -- which gives all kinds of internals about Windows, the operating system -- the Economist; and just staying up as a human being, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the local San Francisco Chronicle; the Economist, to keep track of what the libertarians around me are thinking about the world.

And then there's the Web. I mean, there are sites on the Web I feel compelled to check daily, and there is a kind of unbearable overload. And at one time, I found that overload exhilarating, actually. I mean, the fact that there was always more coming at me seemed just delightful. I mean, that you'd never run out of the stuff. And learning a new tool was just thrilling. I mean, take it to bed, read it, read it on weekends, walk around muttering the stuff to yourself.

I think what's happened to me is a couple of things. One, the computer industry is going -- is just thinking in quarters, so there's a lot of change just happening for its own sake right now. I mean, Microsoft does not have to keep changing its object programming model, for instance, you know, every three months, the way it seems to be doing. There's no good technical reason for that.

The other is well, of course, my age, I suppose. At a certain point, I've been around long enough to see that some of this isn't really so new. It's an old idea come back repackaged. It's not going to save the world. This new technology isn't going to be the end-all and be-all. There's going to be something else behind it. And it's kind of a maturity one gets, you know, when you've been around for a while.

The other part of it is just age. In any profession, middle age is a time for me. It's been kind of thinking: "well, you know, you've got one life and how are you going to spend it?" And it seems somehow very unnatural at mid-life to keep chasing after the latest new everything, you know, because you know there would be no end to that, and at the end of your days, you'll still be chasing.

BOGAEV: I'd like to thank you so much for talking today.

ULLMAN: I've enjoyed it. Thank you very much.

BOGAEV: Ellen Ullman's new memoir is Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents. She runs her own computer consulting business based in San Francisco.

I'm Barbara Bogaev and this is FRESH AIR.

Dateline: Barbara Bogaev
Guest: Ellen Ullman
High: Computer software engineer and NPR correspondent Ellen Ullman. Her book is titled "Close to the Machine." It's her semi-autobiographical account of a computer programmer trying to reconcile her work - machines and information -- with the need for human contact and the feel of living in the real world.
Spec: Computers; Labor; Family; Culture; Books; Authors; Close to the Machine
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Close to the Machine
Show: FRESH AIR
Date: DECEMBER 04, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 120402NP.217
Type: FEATURE
Head: Bill Nye
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:30

BARBARA BOGAEV, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev.

Ever since the pocket protector was invented and probably long before then, people interested in science have been considered nerds, dweebs, outcasts, geeks, losers. Now, it's one man's quest to change all that.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, LEAD-IN JINGLE FOR "THE SCIENCE GUY")

Bill Nye the Science Guy
Bill Nye the Science Guy
Bill, Bill, Bill, Bill, Bill
Bill Nye the Science Guy

Science rules

Bill Nye the Science Guy

Inertia is a property of matter
Bill, Bill, Bill, Bill, Bill
Bill Nye the Science Guy
Bill, Bill, Bill

T - minus seven seconds

Bill, Bill, Bill, Bill
Bill Nye the Science Guy

Brought to you by Chock Full of Lead Coffee
Bursting with heavy metal flavor

BOGAEV: Bill Nye is the creator, host and head writer of the TV show "Bill Nye the Science Guy" which airs weekdays on public television and weekends on commercial stations around the country.

Through a frenetic mix of video clips, scientific explanations, song and movie parodies, cheap sound effects, bad puns, and do-it-yourself experiments, Bill Nye the Science Guy proves beyond a doubt that science is cool.

With lab coat and bow-tie intact, he jumps out of airplanes to demonstrate gravity, or scuba dives to get a first-hand look at undersea invertebrates. Although the show is aimed at 9- to 11-year-olds, over half its viewers now, in its fifth year in syndication, are adults -- people like me and possibly you who have only the shakiest grounding in basic science.

Each show is designed to teach the audience two concepts about the show's theme. I asked Bill Nye what the learning objectives were for the show on smell.

BILL NYE, HOST, "BILL NYE THE SCIENCE GUY": Animal sense of smell is a process that detects molecules in the air -- in the air or water, excuse me. And then human smell is very, very sensitive -- or your senses of smell are very, very sensitive. And the most astonishing example of this are salmon, which apparently can smell one molecule in 30 quadrillion. Sharks in the tens of trillions. Humans are one in a million -- some people think one in ten million.

So basically what we did, we had popcorn cooking in a microwave at the center of a basketball court. And then how long would it take you to smell it? Not very long, it turns out. And it's just like a milliliter of popcorn molecules in the air is all you need to smell it.

A shark, then, could detect the very tippy-tip-tip of a fine, fine artist's paint brush full of blood in an Olympic-size pool. And then a salmon could detect that blood in, I'd say, 100 Olympic-size pools. It's quite remarkable. The salmon thing is pretty jaw-dropping. They are -- they're really cranked up.

So, you rely on your sense of smell way more than you realize.

BOGAEV: Now, are there subjects you consider too controversial for the program?

NYE: Well...

BOGAEV: I'm thinking of, say, I don't know, cancer or evolution? I mean, you might have done a show on evolution.

NYE: We did do a show on evolution, and I've got to tell you, it is generally regarded that we pulled a punch on evolution. So for you fans out there, coming up this season will be the "patterns" show, and "patterns" are a topic that people are really excited about in science education these days because that's apparently related to how human brains process information.

In the pattern show, we're going to have a bit about evolution. So you have a -- it's just ironic that we have this society -- here, everybody that's listening to the show right now is listening on the radio, which is a result of human's understanding of electromagnetic radiation, which is what the sun gives off and Jupiter and places like that. And it's this intimate understanding of science, and yet we have this weird sort of segment of our population in the United States that for some reason doesn't fully embrace evolution -- doesn't fully accept it.

Yet they -- they're more than happy to use their blenders and drive their cars and everything else that the same process of understanding the world has brought us -- or the cash machine. 'Cause the evidence -- I mean, evolution isn't a theory. I mean, I guess it was a century ago, or something. Evolution is a fact. I mean, it's just -- that's how it is.

And the other -- the other topic that we've talked about doing that we never really address directly is sex. Sex, sex, sex. But if you've ever seen the show on flowers...

LAUGHTER

... that's -- a lot of the flower show is about sex. 'Cause -- the reason flowers are so successful is their -- the way they mix their genes, which is sex.

BOGAEV: And why haven't you done a show on sex?

NYE: Well, it's generally agreed, and I'm right there, that it's too personal a thing; that parents want to control that. They don't want this kooky guy jumping in their living room telling their kids about sex. They want to -- it's a personal thing. They want to impart that knowledge themselves, and I think that might even be genetic. That might even be deep in our genes -- that need to control that part of your child.

You know, if you're a mammal, and you are, the big thing that makes mammals different from a lot of other animals is that we need our parents. We need adult -- you know, it takes a whole village to raise a child -- that kind of thing. You need adults around to become a successful adult yourself.

Did I go off on a tangent there for you?

BOGAEV: No, no, no -- I'm happy to have you talk about sex on this show.

NYE: But flowers -- flowers and sex, that's sort of one and the same thing, and humans and sex, we've decided not really to address too much on the show. But...

BOGAEV: It seems as if there was a kind of science black-out for years on children's television. I'm thinking, when I grew up, there wasn't all that much to watch. But now, there are lots of TV programs about science -- there's the "Magic School Bus;" there's "Newton's Apple;" "Beakman's (ph) World;" of course Bill Nye the Science Guy.

Is this just a television fad? Or do you understand it as science time has come. It's now a hot commodity in popular culture.

NYE: Well, both. By that I mean, its -- its cycle has come around again and it is a hot topic right now. And the guy that I had when I was very young, and I was so young that I didn't get most of it, was "Mr. Wizard" -- Don Herbert (ph) -- who's still around and he comes to science teacher conventions to reassure you out there. He's 80. He's kind of hard of hearing, but he's a genius. You know, I mean, he probably -- or as I say, he sent this country to the moon.

But after he retired, there was a void and I don't know why that is exactly. And a big problem that's very well-documented in studies done in the education community is that people who were raised in this void that you're talking about -- in this era, say, from the mid-'60s right after the success of the Apollo missions, to the early 1990s -- you know, a period of almost 20 years.

People who were raised in that time and became teachers do not have this firm science background that we would like them to have. And I say "we" -- people in society would like them to have; you as a parent would like them to have. And so we're -- there's a lot of evidence to suggest that over half of what you learn about science -- what you learn about anything -- comes from sources outside of school; what's called -- technically called "informal" education.

So on my show, we're going our best to enhance informal education and bring it up to as high a level as we can. And along with that, during -- when these wacky nutty kids -- what's his name? -- Bill Clinton took over, there had been in place for a year something called the Children's Television Act, but through processes that I'm not really an expert on at all, but these laws were not enforced. The Children's Television Act was not really enforced because it would have been such a far-reaching thing.

Well anyway, when a new set of administrators got to Washington in the early '90s, they thought they'd enforce these laws, and they actually threatened to revoke station licenses -- television station licenses -- if they didn't provide -- and the wording has been kicked around a lot -- if they didn't provide what they called "programming that was primarily educational."

So when that happened, there was this big -- everybody in -- all the producers in the country, or many producers, really tried to hustle to make television educational.

BOGAEV: Every show, you feature profiles of scientists.

NYE: What we call the "way cool" scientists.

BOGAEV: The way cool scientists, and I've noticed maybe a disproportionate number of them are women. And traditionally, of course, girls are the ones who fall behind in their interest in science in high school, maybe in middle school.

Is this part of a conscious effort on the show to reach out to young girls? Are they still science-shy?

NYE: Absolutely. Yes, yes, yes. It is absolutely a conscious effort to reach out to young girls, and to what nowadays are called "people of color." The thing is, you have a society where half the workforce is woman, let's say, for example. You have to have -- in my opinion, in my opinion -- you have to have half of the scientists to be women or you're going to have an unbalanced view of science. You're going to have an unbalanced view of the world.

I guess in this -- you know, or science is not the ultimate truth. Science is this process of discovering the world. So, you have to have people of color and women in science or you're going to have -- I'm going to argue -- inferior science. So yes, it's a conscious effort.

But let me say -- it's an interesting thing -- there isn't that -- there aren't that there are more women scientists shown on the show in the way cool scientist segment. I'll bet you, Barbara, it's that you notice them.

BOGAEV: Uh.

NYE: I'll bet you it's that you go "wow, gee I didn't expect that." But of course, there's a huge number of women doing fantastic science, and we try to feature them on the way cool scientist segment. But my -- the little goal of the show, Barbara -- my little goal -- as host and head writer -- is to -- dare I say it? -- change the world.

That's really what I'm going for; trying to get women and kids of color or girls and kids of color excited about science, so that in the future, we will have enough scientists to save the world -- or the world for humans.

BOGAEV: Bill Nye is my guest. He's the host and the head writer of the nationally syndicated children's science show Bill Nye the Science Guy which airs weekdays on PBS and weekends on commercial stations around the country. We're going to talk some more after this break.

This is FRESH AIR.

Back with Bill Nye, host and writer of the nationally syndicated science show for kids, Bill Nye the Science Guy.

There's a famous documentary that I'm pretty sure you might have seen. It's a series of interviews with Harvard graduates...

NYE: Oh, yeah.

BOGAEV: ... right on -- on graduation day, right there. They've got their clap-boards on...

NYE: ... with their (unintelligible)

BOGAEV: ... right -- they have their diplomas in hand, and they're asked to explain why it's warmer in the summer.

NYE: That's right. Yeah.

BOGAEV: And virtually none of them can do it. It's just amazing. And they come up with the most hilariously scientifically illiterate answers.

NYE: Now, before we go too far, Barbara...

BOGAEV: Yeah?

NYE: ... can I ask you?

BOGAEV: Oh, please.

NYE: Why do we -- why is it warmer in the summer?

BOGAEV: Now, I know it's about the axis, and the Earth is tilted and...

NYE: That's it. That's the key word.

BOGAEV: ... it spins -- yes, right.

NYE: The key word is that the Earth is tilted, and so when we did a show on the Earth's seasons, we just -- we reiterated that often.

BOGAEV: OK. OK. OK.

NYE: The Earth is tilted.

BOGAEV: Why is it that people can leave Harvard not having reached basic competency in science?

NYE: I'm not an expert on that, but I -- I'm -- I'll tell you right now I think it's really bad. And here's why I think it's bad: we have gotten to this point in the world, in human history or in history of the earth, where everybody buys a calendar; everybody wears a wrist watch; everybody has a computer that has a clock on it.

And the computer runs, by the way, with a clock in its central processing unit -- that's what "CPU" means for those of you who didn't know -- and it uses the clock to access data and to have these so-called "interrupt driven" programs and so on.

And it's human's understanding of the passage of time that has allowed us to have a society. It's a way -- understanding clocks is a way more significant thing than understanding the wheel. There was a time, an era, when people would actually lose count of the number of days of the year -- when the Nile was going to flood -- and they would not have crops. They would, like, starve. They would, like, mess up their agriculture, because they didn't have this understanding that we take so for granted.

And then to have people graduating from our universities without this fundamental understanding of what makes the earth's seasons is crushing.

BOGAEV: So how -- so how do you define scientific literacy? What should we all have a handle on to get along in life?

NYE: I think everybody has to have a fundamental understanding of the seasons. Everybody has to have a fundamental understanding of where the earth is in the solar system. For example, do you know what keeps the air on the earth's surface? It's a really interesting question. It's gravity.

BOGAEV: Gravity.

NYE: Yeah. It's the same thing that makes the Earth round. The Earth is rounder than the shiniest ball-bearing or BB you've ever seen. And that's because of gravity. And yet, interestingly enough, Barbara, no one really knows exactly, exactly what causes gravity. I mean, we're very close to understanding, but we don't really actually know.

Anyway, so that would be very important, I think, to know what holds the air and ocean on the Earth. There's a lot of things, Barbara, I'm sorry -- there's a lot of things everybody should know about science and I'm sure there are many things that I should know that I don't know. But that's the charm of science, is that it's a process. You always learn -- constantly picking up new stuff.

BOGAEV: Before you were the science guy, were you the science nerd?

NYE: Yes, I was the science nerd. I was in high school as a member -- a proud member -- of the Mad Scientists Club. There were four or five of us, depending on kind of -- we actually...

LAUGHTER

... we wore ties to school, we were such -- we were so backward. We actually wore ties to school as sort of a -- you know, to show respect for our teachers. That was how nutty it was.

BOGAEV: Do you remember the first time you were in a school science class and you thought: "wow, this is really cool. This is what I want to do with my life."

NYE: Yeah, I think so. Well, I remember a couple of times, but I was in second grade and we have made barometers out of bottles with eyedroppers in them, 'cause the eyedropper provides a tube from a liquid up to the -- up above the surface of the bottle. You know what I mean?

Anyway, and they overflowed when a thunderstorm came. The atmospheric pressure got so low that the barometers were in a sense exploding all over the classroom -- food coloring running all over the floor...

BOGAEV: Now, that was cool.

NYE: ... of Mrs. McGonicle (ph) -- yeah, it was cool.

LAUGHTER

And then just a few moments later, it's this astonishing downpour with lightning and thunder and all that fabulous stuff. And I mean, you never forget that. That was spectacular.

BOGAEV: You got a degree in mechanical engineering, and eventually you worked for Boeing designing hydraulic systems. And then you started doing stand-up comedy on the side. How did you get...

NYE: Yes.

BOGAEV: ... from engineering to entertaining?

NYE: Well, I was a senior in college and the guy who had been my freshman roommate came hurrying to my door. He had cable television, which in the late '70s was quite unusual. He had -- and so he brought me up to his house. He was living with a bunch of -- we were still good friends, but we just weren't living in the same room anymore.

Anyway, he goes: "look at this." It's Steve Martin at the Boarding House in San Francisco. And it was not on the air television; it was only on cable. And he said: "look, this guy's just like you. Look at this. This guy's just like you."

So then, I got a job at Boeing and a year later, a whole different set of friends -- a whole new set of friends in Seattle -- pressured me into entering the Steve Martin look-alike contest 'cause they had observed the same features of my behavior. And I won. And I didn't win the national one. I won -- the guy who won the national one -- man, he really looked like him; probably still does. And he played the -- he played the banjo, for crying out loud.

But anyway, I started doing stand-up comedy. People wanted me to be Steve Martin at parties. People wanted me to, you know, to do Steve Martin routines on these little television things, and so I started doing stand-up comedy with my own wall-to-wall hilarious engineering jokes.

I reached what they call the "middle act" in comedy. I never "headlined," as they say. There's three things. There's the MC, the middle act, and the headliner. I "middled" a few times.

BOGAEV: When did you first come up with Bill Nye, the Science Guy?"

NYE: Oh, oh -- I was on the radio, in fact, to -- with a guy named Ross Schaefer (ph), who was a Seattleite who later became the host of "The New Match Game." And he had the hottest radio show in Seattle for a while, and I -- he had this radio call-in thing -- something-or-other, something-or-other -- and the answer was "so many, so many gigawatts." It was -- the "Back to the Future" movie was popular at the time.

And I called him and I said: "Ross, you know, you can say 'gigawatts,' but it's preferred -- you know, we scientists prefer to say, what, gigawatts.

BOGAEV: Gigawatts?

NYE: A billion watts, yeah, gigawatts.

And he said: "who are you?" And I said: "I'm Bill Nye, the science guy." You know, just like, "whoa, that's it. My destiny." It was just "my goodness, I've done it." And that was in 1986 and I just, really, I saw it so clearly. I just said to myself: "I want to be the next Mr. Wizard. That's what I want to do."

Because I was doing stand-up comedy. I was working as an engineer. And I was also volunteering at the Pacific Science Center here in Seattle. It's like the Franklin...

BOGAEV: Institute.

NYE: ... Ben Franklin -- yeah -- Franklin Institute, excuse me, in Philadelphia, you know. It's a place you go to fool with stuff, as a kid, to learn about science.

And I was volunteering there and I was working at a company that was doing the same things that, in my opinion, people were doing on the space shuttle program. They would put things in inventory that did not work, and they said, well, by the time the customer needs it, you guys will have this thing figured out; this engineering problem figured out.

But the problem was not tractable that way. I mean, you couldn't just solve it in a matter of six weeks or something. And so I was really frustrated with the U.S., at least in those days, aerospace engineering techniques. And I had graduated from college at a time when the Chevy Vega and Ford Pinto had actually been presented -- and the "K" car had been presented to the public as things that they would want to buy.

And I was really concerned. I was really concerned about the future -- our future -- the future of this country in science and stuff, and so I wanted to combine all these things. And it took me from the fall of '86 to the spring of '92 to get somebody convinced that it would be worthwhile doing. And it's really been gratifying.

BOGAEV: My guest is Bill Nye the Science Guy. We'll be back after this break.

This is FRESH AIR.

If you're just joining us, my guest is Bill Nye the Science Guy. He's the host and writer of the show Bill Nye, the Science Guy, which is nationally syndicated and you can watch it on PBS on the weekdays. And on the weekends, it airs around the country on commercial stations.

Now, in your early incarnation as the Science Guy, I think you did have one bit perfected in which you eat a frozen marshmallow...

NYE: Oh, yeah.

BOGAEV: ... so that steam comes out your nose?

NYE: Oh yeah, I recommend it. See, you put a marshmallow in liquid nitrogen and you chew it, and steam comes out of your nose. It's just a cool way to -- you can -- if you move your jaw from side to side and you get a nice -- I'm not trying to be; I'm not trying to offend anyone -- if you get a puddle of saliva in your -- on your tongue, you get a really effective steam coming out of your nose. Anybody -- recommend it.

The great thing about liquid nitrogen, Barbara, is it looks so dangerous, yet it is just nitrogen which, you know, three-quarters of the air we breathe, almost, is nitrogen. I'm at a loss for words.

BOGAEV: Where do you get liquid nitrogen?

NYE: Well, your dentist and your physician have liquid nitrogen. And liquid nitrogen is, as we like to say, cheaper than gasoline. It has so many industrial applications that it's made everywhere. People make it all the time. And you -- you know where you get your nitrogen to make your liquid nitrogen, Barbara?

BOGAEV: Where?

NYE: Out of the air -- right out of the air. So there's a couple of companies called "Liquid Air" and that's what they make. They refrigerate air so cold -- they get it so cold that it turns to a liquid. And most of what you get is nitrogen. You get liquid oxygen, liquid carbon dioxide, (unintelligible).

Anyway, and then you -- you put it in a styrofoam cooler like you would put your soft drinks in. I'm not saying that you would put beer in it, but one might. Then you put the marshmallow in it for a good -- over 30 seconds; a minute's good. And then chew it and steam will come out of your nose.

And that's the same thing where you put the rose in it and smash the petals; you put the rubber ball in it, throw it on the floor, and it shatters. You have the pewter bell that just goes "bunk, bunk" and then you freeze it and it goes "ping."

And you do all that with liquid nitrogen because matter is made of molecules. When you get them cold, the molecules get closer together and it changes things. And they get closer together because they have less internal energy. Hah! It's fabulous. What is it, Barbara? It's science!

BOGAEV: Now, you've applied to be an astronaut. Are you in the running? What are your chances?

NYE: Well, January of '98; January '98's my next rejection postcard.

BOGAEV: How often have you been rejected?

NYE: Three times. I've applied three times. Actually, no. I've been rejected twice. Excuse me. I've gotten three postcards acknowledging my -- receipt of my application. I think I'd be -- I mean, first of all, athletically, I could do it and I still have better than 20/20 eyesight. I mean, I feel good about that.

And I have a pretty good understanding of aeronautics, astronautics, vacuums, and I've been around very complicated machines like jet aircraft and diving equipment and stuff. I'm very comfortable in those environments; submarines.

And I could -- I could pull it off. And I think I'd -- I think I could do a good job for NASA. I would make people embrace the space program in a way they don't right now.

BOGAEV: What do you say to those people who say: "look, the space program is too expensive; it's not a priority." What's your rationale for them?

NYE: Well, turn on the news every night, and I'm not talking about the space program, but everybody watches the satellite picture -- the Doppler Radar of the weather. Everyone accepts now that there's a hole in the ozone. Everyone knows what satellite television is. Everyone knows -- everyone wants his or her phone call or radio broadcast to come to him or her via satellite. That's all the space program.

Let alone the astonishing things we've discovered about the ocean and El Nino, and these things about ancient civilizations, when the radar was -- when there was radar from space. It's just amazing. I'm not talking about velcro and all that other stuff that was brought up 20 years ago. Those are cool things -- the spin-offs so-called.

But just the fundamental knowledge and expectation you have everyday about your environment -- we learn so much of those -- so many of those data from space exploration. And every radio/television broadcast relies on satellites, for crying out loud. Communication is the key to democracy, so you have to have a space program nowadays to have a democracy.

BOGAEV: Bill Nye is host and head writer of Bill Nye the Science Guy, seen weekdays on PBS and weekends on commercial stations.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP, CHILDREN DISCUSSING CAREER PLANS)

CHILD: A movie star.

CHILD: A pro quarterback.

CHILD: I want to be a computational fluid dynamics engineer."

Dateline: Barbara Bogaev, Philadelphia
Guest: Bill Nye
High: Bill Nye, The Science Guy. Through his long-running PBS show, Nye continues to teach kids about the fun and magic of science. The show "Bill Nye the Science Guy" is also in syndication and Nye has released a series of themed videos culled from his shows.
Spec: Media; Science; Education; Television
Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Copy: Content and programming copyright 1997 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1997 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Bill Nye
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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